One of the most common words of advice given to new bison producers is, “You can make a bison go anywhere it wants to go.”
Because bison are undomesticated, they must be handled very carefully to prevent injuries to both animals and handlers. In fact, the more stress applied to bison, the more dangerous the situation is. Through the years, bison producers have learned to adopt low-stress, humane handling techniques to keep animals calm and stress-free.
Bison are naturally-adapted to the environmental conditions of North America, so producers handle their animals less often than do producers of domesticated species like cattle and sheep.
In addition, growth hormones are never utilized in bison, and antibiotics are used only to treat sick animals. That means that bison are never “run through the chutes” to administer growth stimulants.
Humane handling practices utilized throughout the bison business are adapted to utilize the behavioral patterns of bison.
It begins with the pasture and corral conditions used by producers. In pasture conditions, producers know that ample food and water, and a right balance of male and female animals, will keep the herd at “home.”
During times when animals are handled, bison producers have learned that “slow and quiet” is a prerequisite for successful management. Bison still have their prey animal instincts, and thus will generally predictably react to unfamiliar species (including humans) that move within their zone of comfort.
Bison producers learn how to gently apply and release pressure to bison by moving within the animals’ natural flight zones. By utilizing these natural techniques, ranchers help the animals move through facilities more calmly.
Similarly, bison finishing operations are designed to allow animals to exercise their natural social behavior, including the establishment of a natural “pecking order.” Providing ample space assures that stress is minimized, which results in better quality meat. In fact, the standard recommendation of 400 square feet per animal for bison in finishing facilities is roughly double the space allotted for cattle in a similar arrangement.
The same principles apply to the harvesting of bison in commercial facilities. Animals that are calm prior to harvest will produce higher quality meat, thereby creating an incentive to treat bison humanely at the processing facility. Most commercial processing facilities today have handling facilities specifically designed to keep the animals calm and quiet.
Today’s bison producers recognize that they are the stewards of this magnificent animal. The baseline of that stewardship is respect for the animal, and a commitment to humane husbandry throughout the life cycle.